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Thirteen Orphans, страница 1


Thirteen Orphans

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Thirteen Orphans

  Table of Contents

  Title Page



































  Copyright Page

  For Pati Nagle and Chris Krohn, in cheerful memory of the Christmas Eve they taught me mah-jong, and unknowingly planted the seeds for this book.

  And for Jim and Mom, in thanks for all those three-handed games.


  Since Thirteen Orphans begins a new series, there are a lot of people to thank. Some have already been noted in the dedication, but many others aided in the creation of this book in ways large and small.

  My thanks to Judith Baker and Sage Walker for discussions on Pill Virgins; to Walter Jon Williams for sharing his enthusiasm for Chinese martial arts weapons; to Lupe Martinez for helping me track down a host of obscure texts, including the original Babcock on mah-jong; and to my cousin Diane Watkins Fellenz for showing me Japantown.

  Many thanks to my first readers: Jim Moore, Julie Bartel, Yvonne Coats, Sally Gwylan, Alan Robson, Phyllis White, and Bobbi Wolf.

  Special thanks to my agent, Kay McCauley, who made my enthusiasm for this project her own.

  At Tor Books, my thanks go to Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, the self-proclaimed “uncle and aunt” of this new venture; to Tom Doherty for asking many questions and suggesting bringing Brenda to the fore. Extra special thanks go to Melissa Singer, who came on board as editor at the eleventh hour. She has shown a true gift for applying both the spur and the rein. I’ve enjoyed having her along for the ride.


  Albert Yu scattered the mah-jong tiles with restless hands, not liking what they were showing him. They clattered softly against each other, sparrow-voiced protest against this rough handling.

  With dexterity too automatic to be graceful, Albert sorted the tiles, flipping them to hide the bone faces, each with its own intricately incised pattern. When all the faces were hidden, Albert lightly touched his long-fingered hands against the smooth surfaces of the bamboo backs and shuffled the tiles against the printed fabric spread over the tabletop.

  The tiles clicked and clattered when they touched each other, their voices softer, mollified. After a long while, when even the tiles themselves might have been confused as to which was which, Albert began stacking them two high, arraying the stacks into lines, the lines into a perfect square.

  From a small, round cloisonné bowl, Albert scooped two ivory dice. He rolled them in the center of the square, observed the number, counted off the walls until one of the four was selected. Then he rolled again. This time he counted from one end of the previously indicated wall, found his place, and broke the wall by carefully lifting free two tiles.

  The cloth that covered his table was printed with a dozen stylized animals positioned in a circle around the square. A thirteenth animal was in the center.

  Moving quickly, not stopping to analyze the developing pattern, Albert set a tile on each of the twelve animals. A thirteenth tile was placed in the exact center of the square. The fourteenth was set, facedown, on an ideograph printed on the lower right interior margin of the square.

  Albert studied the tile he had placed on the first animal—a sharp-nosed, grey-furred rat. He nodded as if the tile had told him something he already knew. His gaze flickered to where the next tile rested upon the depiction of a water buffalo. He frowned.

  Next around the circle was the tiger. The tight lines around Albert Yu’s mouth softened when he read the tile there, softened further when he shifted his attention to the tile set upon the rabbit.

  Tightness returned as he read the tiles set upon the dragon, the snake, the horse. The tightness increased, etching lines between his brows as he read the tiles set upon the ram and the monkey. Hastily he shifted his attention to the tiles upon the rooster and the dog. Whatever he read there did not increase his tension, but neither did it ease it. The tile set upon the pig made his frown return.

  Lastly, he examined the tile set upon the picture printed on the center of the cloth. The picture depicted a house cat sitting upright in perk-eared alertness, its gaze angled as if observing a bird just out of reach.

  Albert spoke aloud for the first time as he looked at the tile. “Well enough there, but then I knew it would be.”

  He turned over the fourteenth tile and held it between three fingers, staring at it for a long while, his expression holding mingled fear and disbelief.

  He was setting the tile down and reaching for the nearby telephone when a door behind him opened.

  Albert swung around and lurched to his feet, the phone still in his hand.

  “You! Why did you come here unannounced? Have you also received inauspicious omens?”

  “All well for the Cat?” the other said, then gestured to where the fourteenth tile sat on the printed cloth. “Or perhaps not … perhaps not …”

  Albert dropped the phone, moved to put the table between himself and the intruder. The other raised one hand. Nestled in the palm was a small sphere that caught the light, and gave back twisted images. Then the intruder reached into a jacket pocket and came out with a strip of pale yellow paper upon which Chinese characters had been painted in black ink.

  Albert ducked, but there was no dodging what was coming after him. He saw his name twisting out to wrap around him, and then he saw nothing more.


  Brenda Morris shifted uneasily in the passenger seat of the car her father had rented at the airport.

  “Move the seat back if you’re not comfortable,” her father said without removing his gaze from the road. “The manual is in the glove compartment if the controls don’t make any sense.”

  Obediently, Brenda pulled out the manual and leafed through the glossy pages, but her discomfort was something other than physical. Indeed, the car seat was comfortable to the point of ridiculousness, the result of a double upgrade her father had finagled at the rental counter. He was good at things like that. The strange thing was that people always liked Gaheris Morris, even when he’d just taken advantage of them.

  Brenda’s mother frequently said her husband and her eldest were alike in their ability to make people like them. Although she always said this with a smile, the comparison usually made Brenda uncomfortable. It didn’t seem quite right that people should admire you for being smart enough to take advantage of them.

  Brenda slid the manual back into the glove compartment, and leaned back in the seat without making any adjustments.

  Her father glanced over at her.

  “It’s all right if you change the seat, Breni.”

  “I’m fine.”

  He shrugged one shoulder and turned his attention back to the road. “If you say so. I just can’t figure out where you put all that leg. You seem to grow an inch every couple of months.”

  “Not quite every.” She laughed. “Actually, I’m not growing nearly as fast as I did in high school. I did need to buy new jeans last week.”

  “I know.” Her father gave a mock sigh of exasperation. “I saw the credit-card bill.”

  I just wish the rest of
me would catch up with my legs, Brenda thought. I’m tired of being flat-chested. Other girls complain about their hips and big butts, but at least they don’t get taken for a boy from the back. I think the only thing that saves me from being embarrassed more often is the length of my hair.

  Brenda liked her dad a lot, but she wasn’t going to say something like that out loud. He was a man, after all, and he’d probably be embarrassed.

  Or worse, he’d say something witty, and she’d be the one to get embarrassed.

  So she turned her gaze out the window. She could see enough to know that northern California was a lot different from South Carolina.

  My hair wouldn’t save me here, she thought as she watched two men with ponytails bike by on a side path. I’d have to wear a skirt all the time, and then I’d look like a stretched-out nine-year-old, or worse, a boy in drag.

  “Dad, why are we here?”

  “You mean in California, or has the local vibe given rise to existential thoughts?”

  Brenda swallowed a grin. She’d tried to ask her father the reason for this trip several times over the preceding week. Gaheris Morris traveled on business a lot, and he hadn’t felt the need to take his eldest and only daughter with him on other trips. When he’d gone out earlier to meet with a client, he’d left her back at the hotel, so he wasn’t indoctrinating her into the family mercantile business as a prelude to some sort of summer internship.

  Each time Brenda had asked, Dad had found a way to put her off or distract her. She wasn’t going to let him do it this time, even if that line about existential thoughts was a pretty good one.

  “I mean here in California, at this time, heading wherever it is we’re heading.”

  Dad sighed deeply. He drove in silence for a long moment, but Brenda held her breath, refusing to say anything he might use to turn the conversation in another direction. Only after he had navigated a complicated turn did he speak.

  “We’re going to see an old friend …” He interrupted himself. “Actually, ‘old’ isn’t the right word. Albert Yu is about my age, mid-forties. ‘Friend’ isn’t exactly right either. We’ve had plenty of disagreements. How about this: We’re going to see someone I’ve known just about my entire life, and the reason we’re going is because I want you to meet him.”

  “Albert Yu?” Brenda frowned. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you mention him.”

  “No … I probably wouldn’t. Like I said, I’ve known him pretty much all my life, but we …”

  He paused again. Brenda found herself startled to silence by her usually articulate father’s strange inability to say whatever it was that was on his mind.

  “Brenda,” he began again, “humor me, would you? One of the reasons I brought you here was to meet Albert before I talked about him, before I biased you in any way. Just because …”

  He almost visibly bit off his words in midstream.

  “Would you humor me, Breni?”

  Brenda had a distinct feeling that she was being “gotten around,” the way her dad got around so many people, but what could she do? Besides, seeing Dad so flustered had her flustered. She had to admit that she was now eager to meet this Albert Yu so she could figure out what it was about him that made Dad so edgy.

  “Okay,” she said, “but I’ll hit you up for something later.”

  “Anything,” he promised in the tone that indicated he meant it, “as long as it isn’t chocolate.”

  On that startling note, he fell silent. Except for comments on their surroundings, he maintained that silence for the rest of the drive.

  Brenda had no idea what she had expected their destination to be, but a high-class, higher-end, high-tech shopping plaza was not it. The buildings were crafted from exposed steel set with sweeping sheets of tinted glass. Most were smoke grey, but interspersed with these were randomly placed strips of bronze or gold. Roofs rose at odd angles that reminded Brenda of old science-fiction illustrations of cities of the future, yet there was a feeling of “village” about the complex as well, created by meandering paths between buildings, immaculately groomed potted plants, and individual storefronts with signs swinging over their doors.

  There was plenty of parking, but Dad didn’t pull into any of the available spaces. Instead he guided the rental car down service alleys meant to be overlooked, so that mundanities like trash disposal and stock delivery would never smear this retail paradise.

  “Does Albert Yu work here?” Brenda asked as her dad pulled the car into a space near a series of door-lined alcoves.

  “He … does, in a way. He has an office here. Look, sugarplum, no more questions for now, all right?”

  Brenda blinked. Her father had stopped calling her “sugarplum” sometime when she was in high school. This Albert Yu must really have him rattled.

  “Right, Dad.”

  When they got out of the car, Dad moved more slowly than usual, checking and double-checking locks, glancing at his watch more than once. When he started moving, though, he strode along swiftly enough that, long legs or not, Brenda had to trot to keep up.

  He led the way to one of the door-lined alcoves, and selected the central door. It must have been unlocked, because he was swinging it open almost before Brenda caught up. She had time enough to glimpse the legend “Your Chocolatier” written on the door with gold ink in a thin, elegant script before her father was inside and heading up the stairs.

  The stairway was so startling that Brenda could hardly make herself ascend the treads. She’d done her time in retail and knew that elegance rarely extended behind the scenes. Here, however, instead of grey painted metal and harsh lighting was a narrow stairway paneled in ebony. Light so dim that it hardly qualified as such reflected off tiny silver nailheads bordering wall panels and stair treads. When the door at the base of the stairwell swung soundlessly shut behind her, Brenda had the impression that she was walking through the night sky, held up only by the stars.

  “Dad?” she said softly.

  “Here,” he said. “Come on. It’s strange, but nothing to be afraid of, pretty even, in its way.”

  Brenda had to agree. She concentrated on forgetting her surroundings and let her feet carry her up as she would have at home. In moments, she was behind her father, close enough to catch his familiar scent, one that mingled sharp aftershave and the mustard he inevitably slathered on almost anything he ate.

  She heard Dad rap his knuckles against the door, but instead of someone coming to answer the door, it swung open of its own accord. Fleetingly, Brenda thought this was another element of the mysterious Mr. Yu’s eccentricities. Then her father stepped forward and exclaimed in wordless shock.

  Brenda slipped past him and into an office that was, in its own way, as odd as the stairway. She had no attention for the peculiarities of the decor because, like her father’s, her attention was riveted by the empty room, and the evidence that it was probably not empty by choice of the occupant.

  A table showing what at first glance looked like a mah-jong game in progress dominated the room, as an executive desk might a more usual office. This table had been shoved to one side. It was too large and too heavy to have been knocked over, but some of the tiles had been spilled from the squared-off wall that still stood mostly intact on a cloth at the table’s center.

  Other pieces of furniture had been moved roughly aside. Papers had spilled from stacks on cabinets to drift on the thick Oriental carpet that covered most of the polished hardwood floor. A chair was shoved into a corner.

  Brenda had watched enough television to know that you didn’t interfere with a crime scene, so she was almost hurt when her father said sharply, “Don’t touch anything!”

  Then he pulled out his cell phone, but instead of hitting 911 or Operator or something, he punched in a string of at least ten numbers. She heard the faint sounds of someone answering on the other end.

  “Pearl Bright, please,” her father said briskly. He waited a moment, then said, “Auntie Pearl?”

; His next words, to Brenda’s complete astonishment, were in fluid, unmistakable Chinese. She knew that Auntie Pearl—one of her father’s oldest friends—was part Chinese, but Dad had never spoken to Pearl Bright in that language before, at least in Brenda’s hearing.

  Brenda knew enough Chinese to thank a waitress or follow the occasional line of dialogue in a foreign film, but that was it. She recognized the sound, though, because her parents had a fondness for foreign films and always insisted on watching them subtitled. She’d never had the least hint that Dad understood a word of what was being said, but here he was quavering and fluting away like a native.

  Deciding she’d had enough of weirdness and miracles, Brenda steadfastly turned her back on her father and tried to figure out what had happened in this room.

  She’d thought of the room as an office, because that’s what her father had led her to expect, but it was certainly unlike any office she had seen before.

  Her first impression had been that the room was windowless, but now she saw that it had windows, front and back. The one in the rear was smoky grey, clearly one of the exterior panels of the building itself. It began about seven feet from the floor, then angled upward sharply to become part of the ceiling for about three feet, before a more standard, solid ceiling took over.

  The front window was even stranger. At first glance it was more grey, nearly opaque glass, but as Brenda stared at it, she realized that what she had taken for dim reflections of herself and her father were actually people moving around on the other side. She studied them for a moment before turning to her father.

  Gaheris Morris was pocketing his cell phone, his expression mingling concern and relief.

  “Dad, there are people out there! A shop, I think.”

  Dad nodded. “That’s right. That’s the shopfront for Your Chocolatier, Albert’s business.”

  “He sells candy?”

  “He sells candy the way Ferrari sells cars. Your Chocolatier is where movie stars and millionaires buy their Valentine chocolates. Individual truffles can cost twenty dollars or more. A box small enough to fit in your jacket pocket can set you back two hundred dollars.”

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